Disney’s live action film adaption of Mulan is a big budget centerpiece in 2020 that would have enjoyed a strong movie theatre reception in any other time. Elegant in style, brimming with flashy choreography, Disney’s Mulan recalls a more classical ’90s structure of filmmaking in 2020. No parlor tricks as a substitute for a relatable narrative, the story stands on its own merits. The Phoenix rises again.
This impressions review contains spoilers for Disney’s Mulan (2020).
Mulan plays out like a children’s storybook being read to them by their parents at dusk. A beautiful film visually, its canvas dripping with lush color while maintaining a traditional three act structure. The Setup: Mulan [Yifei Liu] wants to prove to her father she can be a warrior too by taking his place. The Confrontation: Mulan reveals she’s a female to the Imperial Army, and promptly banished, while being tempted to join the other side (Xianniang). The Climax: Mulan brings honor to her family by stopping a great evil.
It seems so simple on paper but so much of Film & TV has adopted nihilism as their central tenet for driving emotional reaction or excessively relying on CGI… That they’ve forgotten how to send the audience home happy once in a while without smoke & mirrors. Or the shock deaths that we’ve all become accustomed to and desensitized to now anyway.
There was magic in those feel good action films you watched in your youth and Mulan is a return to that approach. Back to basics. No overt preachiness or subtle political messaging to be found for miles either. Surreally enough, we’ve come full circle, the ’90s action movie style is now not just comfort food like pancakes for dinner but feels fresh as raindrops on a blazing hot day.
Selection of Mulan’s Memorable Scenes
Father and Daughter’s silent argument:
The strong father Zhou [Tzi Ma] abiding by tradition and his wife Li’s [Rosalind Chao] wishes that Mulan grow up a proper lady, “I am the father! You are the daughter! Know your place!” Thus, setting up his agile daughter on the course to rebel and prove she belongs. Exceptional acting work by Tzi Ma.
It’s a story with universal appeal, even if there were no lines at all, Zhou slamming the table speaks more than 100 eloquent monologues. Body language was always the world’s first language.
A splash of color permeates every angle of this scene from the makeup to the vivid, animated nature of Mulan’s matchmaker [Pei-Pei Cheng]. Mulan tries her best to put on a performance for the matchmaker that she can be a quiet wife slinking to the background for her husband… Until a spider roams on the table they’re enjoying tea on by Mulan’s sister, Xiu [Xana Tang]. Mulan places the kettle over it, only for the matchmaker to demand she remove it.
When Mulan obliges, the spider escapes from beneath the tea kettle much to the shock of the matchmaker. The whole event goes haywire and plates & cups go flying. Mulan attempts to catch all the table’s bearings in perfect balance but eventually everything drops. The matchmaker ends up telling a crowd of people outside that Mulan is unfit to be a wife and that her parents didn’t raise her well, bringing public shame to the family.
Mulan vs Honghui:
Mulan tires of reigning in her strength while allowing Honghui to crack a smile in gleeful, grinning ‘superiority’ during training. An invested fight scene ensues with top tier choreography.
Its one of the films best moments frankly. Maybe the #1 spot. Particularly when Mulan kicks a spear towards the ground right by Honghui to signal this round was hers. Just pure entertainment, action done right.
After joining the Imperial Army disguised as a male, Mulan keeps taking guard duty and avoids bathing. Eventually her army pals notice as such, and Mulan goes to privately bath in a closeby lake. Honghui [Yoson An] abruptly comes out of nowhere when Mulan thinks she’s alone swimming in the moonlight. She turns her back to him for obvious reasons and tells him to go, that they are not friends and won’t be.
Xianniang plays the Joker to Mulan’s Batman:
Much like the Joker in The Dark Knight, Xianniang attempts to convince Mulan that they’re the same after Mulan’s banishment. Both have been cast away for acting out of their societal expected general roles. Xianniang [Gong Li] chooses not to kill Mulan in a battle earlier for preciously this conversation to occur.
Mulan temporarily considers Xianniang’s argument but decides there is still hope for change. She decides to take her chances with the Imperial Army. Even on the potential chance her return may lead to execution.
Final Fight Scene:
Böri Khan [Jason Scott Lee] is a scene stealer throughout the film, a worthy adversary for Mulan and a grand villain for the audience. Khan grabbing arrows out of the air being shot at him is just plain cool.
Khan’s final battle with Mulan shines with beautiful choreography (as does Mulan’s earlier army clash). Fittingly Khan is about to win until Xianniang takes an arrow to her chest in Hawk form to save Mulan.
Mulan congratulated by the Emperor:
Mulan is presented to the Emperor [Jet Li] by none other than the animated film adaption’s original voice actress Ming-Na Wen! The scene visually looks like a painting, and despite not being very long, leaves a massive impression.
Particularly, that you’ve watched a Triple A big budget production at home. This is no direct-to-video film. As stated earlier, in pre-pandemic times, it would be filling cinemas to the brim opening weekend. Clearly family friendly.
The Phoenix soars.
Watch Mulan on Disney+ right now with Premier Access!
Be sure to read The Natural Aristocrat®’s interview with Mulan and Mrs. America costume designer Bina Daigeler! The Natural Aristocrat® will soon be publishing an in-depth interview with Mulan’s hair, makeup, and prosthetics designer Denise Kum!